Written by Dr. Nada Shabout
Artists have always engaged with their spaces of being. In a speech in 1952, the Iraqi artist Jewad Selim stated, 'the artist observes his surroundings and expresses it faithfully. But what he needs to know is how to realise that expression.'1 What informs a work of art is at times referred to as influence and other times, as inspiration. In the end, artworks are formed as an intersection of the artist's experiences, exposures and education. Therefore, I would argue that it is never a mere inspiration or a reference, but rather a conscious and theoretical reworking of aesthetics, as well as social, historical and cultural negotiations.
In the postmodern era of image-making, we have learned that possibilities of interpretation are as limitless as those of creation. Moreover, following Jean Baudrillard's definition of simulacrum, the eternal art historical concern with the relationship between origin and copy has been shattered.
Forever Now: Five Anecdotes from the Permanent Collection proposes new readings based on the works of five artists from Mathaf's permanent collection. These readings are at once based on the factual art-historical context, in which the work of these artists evolved, as well as the empirical interpretation and experience of the collector who assembled their works. Forever Now unpacks new narratives that posit a new understanding of five diverse artists: Fahrelnissa Zeid, Jewad Selim, Saliba Douaihy, Salim Al-Dabbagh and Ahmed Cherkaoui. It examines the artists' interactions with their immediate environments, histories and cultures in search of new vocabularies to express their altered realities, in response to cycles of rupture and continuity. The result is a nuanced dialogue between experience and history, fact and interpretation that sheds new light on the selected works and the respective artists.
Forever Now is part of Mathaf's and its founder's ongoing mission to instigate possibilities for new narratives and to understand the development of the history of modern art in the Arab world. The exhibition program's premise is twofold. The first is to announce a series of focused and analytical exhibitions that explore specific aspects of various artists represented in the permanent collection. The second is to investigate the collector's understanding of the works within their larger contexts.
Forever Now's focus is solely on the development of the artist and the processes in their work, not the works' reception or other meanings they subsequently acquire. Thus, these works are explored in detachment from the politics of their display. It is clear that these processes illuminate several narratives of colonisation, construction of selfs and reinvention of heritage. There is no doubt that the politics of the region played a major role in perception, in the evolution of form and in changing the artists' relationship to technology and material. The twentieth century witnessed various stylistic transformations and rejections based on political belief and ideology. That is evident in the work of the five artists, albeit in different manifestations. Their various experiments betray their need of finding unique visual identities that were as much national and local as they were personal, through their selective investigations of historical and local signs and symbols.
Colonialism heightened the problematic concerns around identity and enforced national chauvinism as an essential component of the nation-state. The imposition of national politics in the mid-twentieth century deprived the visual form from its free space of production. The work of these five artists carved spaces of colonial resistance and self-assertion, against the hegemony of European modernism.
These artists were particularly conscious of the power relations of their times and their individual responsibilities to respond to local discourses. They all contributed in creating new cultures that were locally distinct, yet formed a regional collective. Moreover, their work displays different stages of intellectual and visual reconciliations of their present and past, self and other. In fact, the works of these artists present a complete denial of 'Otherness' at a time in history when the Middle East has been dubbed the quintessential Other. They effectively de-exoticised and consequently de-orientalised the visual production in the Arab world. Each, in his or her innovative way, engages with what they perceived as humanities' heritage: not limited to a group of people but accessible to all. Theirs is not an appropriation but rather an active dialogue between the self and other, with all of its complexities and contradictions that ultimately negate both, into the preeminence of the work of art.
The five artists selected for this exhibition hail from varied backgrounds, countries and generations. Each of them presents a very unique process of artistic development and negotiations, yet are united through process, heritage, geography and aspirations. As well as presenting their individual abilities to navigate different sources, comfortably and confidently. In addition to their individual achievements, every one of the five artists further contributed to creating a regional movement in modern art within the Arab world. Their work bears witness to their times insofar that it highlights each discourse as it emerged and evolved.
Fahrelnissa Zeid is a remarkable woman whose work presents a rich stylistic dialogue between Ottoman manuscripts, early twentieth-century French School and an emerging Arab art scene. Her vision saw the interlacing of disparate elements of her life that she encountered and her contribution goes beyond the stylistic. She was instrumental in the development of modern art in Jordan and for nurturing a generation of women artists and cultural agents, who further established the infrastructure of art in Jordan. Salwa Mikdadi's essay demarcates Zeid's prolific life as a global artist who was not content with a myopic vision.
Jewad Selim's work betrays an anachronistic approach to history, manifested through formalistic negotiation with different historical periods of his country, Iraq, as well as the modern paradigms of his contemporary education. The works displayed here feature a particular emphasis on the eyes, through which the various styles he employed portrays the historical evolution of his style – from an academic naturalism to abstraction. The eyes are particularly important in Sumerian art and were always exaggerated. Selim transforms the power of large abstract eyes and dramatic eyebrows into an ornamented harmony of cultural significance. Equally, his work negotiates and marks the urban transformations of Baghdad. Selim's work remains important to Iraqi art and artists today as he charted a specific path of investigation capable of change and growth.
Saliba Douaihy's paintings perpetuate an obsession with his native village. While perhaps carrying a level of nostalgia, it nevertheless becomes a great space for his formal exercises. The evolving representation of Wadi Qannoubine in Lebanon marks the stylistic shifts of his artistic vision from naturalist representation to pure abstraction. Badr el-Hage's contribution to this exhibition and catalogue allows us an exceptional opportunity to hear the voice of the artist, through the various recorded interviews el-Hage has conducted with Douaihy, as well as his memories from their interactions.
Salim Al-Dabbagh's economy of form declares the shift in the Iraqi national discourse and to some extent his generation's rejection of the dominant narrative of Iraqi art that privileged the urbanity and social structure of Baghdad. That is specifically evident when comparing his contemplations of nature and open rural surroundings, with Selim's richness of urban and social iconography of the city. Moreover, the shift in technique and style marks a move from the engagement with European art developments, to that of the eastern block. His ascetic creations negotiate the forgotten memories of the Iraqi desert. The textile of the Arab Bedouin (Bayt al-Sha'ar) that amalgamates with its austere horizons, evokes and highlights the Arab component in the Iraqi identity that was perhaps overwhelmed with the richness of other historical elements from Iraq's past, in the work of the previous generations. May Muzaffar's essay allows us a glimpse into al-Dabbagh's world through her knowledge of his work and their personal interactions.
Ahmed Cherkaoui is one of Morocco's most influential artists whose legacy remains prominent in the country's contemporary scene. His negotiations and reformulation of Amazighi iconography introduced a new thread of visual development as well as a specific site of resistance, which allowed him to explore his rich cultural heritage as well as abstraction as a modern style. Brahim Alaoui's essay traces Cherkaoui's artistic journey through its formation and stylistic progression.
The selection of works by the five artists in Forever Now is but a fraction of the wealth of their individual oeuvres. The works in this exhibition were chosen to underline specific but central themes in their artistic journeys. Most importantly, by visually placing their art within the wider historical contexts, we are allowed a rare opportunity to step into their spheres of influence and appreciate the complexities and richness of their visions. The individually authored essays in this catalogue contribute a critical addition not only to the literature on these five artists, but also to new perspectives on the making of Arab artists.